In a Money Lender’s Shop in Late Medieval Poland

Professor Judith Olszowy-Schlanger is the founder of the OSRJL.


The Bodleian Library manuscript MS. Opp. 600 (Neubauer 1378) is a late 15th-century copy of a learned work: a Hebrew translation of Averroes’s adaptation of the Physica Auscultatio of Aristotle. Translated into Hebrew under the title שמע הטבעי, this translation was a popular work preserved in several extant manuscripts—some medieval, others early modern—copied from the printed version of 1559 (Reva di Trento).[1] MS Opp. 600 predates this printing by more than half a century. Its 93 paper folios are written in careful and elegant, non-square Ashkenazi script consistent with contemporary Eastern European styles. The transmission of this scientific work among Eastern European Jews in the late medieval period is in and of itself a fascinating subject, but what attracts our attention today is a series of informal notes scribbled in Hebrew characters on the blank final leaf (fol. 93) of the volume by one of its readers. The language of these notes—tentatively defined as Polish by Malachi Beit-Arié[2]—and the contents, which I have deciphered (with some difficulty), reveal a moment in the life of the book’s reader, who was probably its owner. Through the notes, we discover this reader’s daily occupation, his time and place of activity and his efforts to communicate efficiently and elegantly with non-Jews.

Fig. 1. MS Opp. 600, f. 93v.
(© Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford)

Once the difficulty of recognising the forms of the Slavic words behind the Hebrew script is overcome, the notes reveal a series of short phrases in Old Polish. They are common expressions a Jewish businessman might have needed to communicate with his Christian clients and reveal that the object of the exchange is money lending. The notes do not reflect an actual transaction, but rather constitute a ‘phrasebook’ providing the money lender with model expressions, all in Polish, for different stages of the transaction. 

The conscientious money lender wrote the expressions in the order in which his meetings and negotiations with his Polish customers would have unfolded. Unfortunately, the beginning of the page is missing—traces of the vowels on its upper edge show that the extant part captures the unfolding of potential negotiations in medias res, but not too far into the discussion. The preserved part begins by a no-nonsense overture: שֵיהו טְרְשֶיבו  (szeho trzebo, Modern Polish [henceforth mPol.] czego trzeba?), ‘What do you need?’, and מְנָא הוֹלִי טרשיבו (mnoho-li trzebo? mPol. czy dużo trzeba?), ‘Do you need a lot?’. The agreement to open the negotiation is expressed by a polite verbal form רַאד בִיך (rad bych, mPol. byłbym rad), ‘I would be glad/I would like’. The phrasebook provides ready language assistance in the event that the client is a woman, to whom an offer is introduced by פַאני מֵיל פַעניד (Pani, miła Pani da), ‘Lady, dear lady, you will give . . .’. Readiness to negotiate is expressed by readiness to talk: ֹ מְלובֿיטְיִ (mołwić, mPol. mówić, ‘to say, to talk’). Then follow model proposals for exchange: פַאנִי מִטוֹד יֵידְנָא (Pani mi to da jedno), ‘Dear lady, you will give me that one’, or בֵֿילמי טוֹהוֹא טְרְשֵיבוֹ (wiele mi toho trzebo, mPol. wiele mi tego trzeba), ‘I need a lot of this’.

If up until now the blank phrases were quite general in their semantic purport, the next expressions leave no doubt that the planned discussions concern credit. נַאצְאש כציש (na cóż chcesz), ‘On what do you want (it)?’, is a question about the type of warranty for the loan, as clarified by the possible options offered to the borrower listed immediately after: צֵֵישלִי נַא רוּקוֹיְמֵי  (chcesz-li na rukojmie, mPol. czy chsesz na rękojmie?), ‘Do you want (to secure the loan) with a guarantor?’ (i.e., a person who will stand surety for the loan), or rather is the loan to be secured by a pawn: דיימי זאקלט (daj mi zakład, mPol. Zastaw), ‘Give me a surety [pawn]’.[3]

Once the legal technicalities regarding the form of the loan’s guarantee are sorted out, the phrasebook provides expressions useful in the discussion of monetary details. One appreciates that the phrasebook offers examples of two-sided dialogue between the creditor and the client: אצש מי דאש טוֹהא ([z]a cóż [?] mi to dasz toho? mPol. Za co mi to dasz?), ‘for how much you will give it to me?’, and the reply: דַאם טֵיבֵי זא גרוש  (dam tiebie za grosz, mPol. dam ci [tobie]za grosz), ‘I will give you for one grosz’ (grosz being a silver coin, 1/48 of grzywna, introduced in Czech and Polish lands at the beginning of the 14th century).[4] There are ready expressions for agreement to the conditions, but also for the absence of it: דַאם טֵיבֵי פִיט פיניז  (dam tiebie piat pieniedz, mPol. dam ci pięć [monet] pieniędzy), ‘I will give you five coins’, faces ני דאם טֵיבי  (nie dam tiebie, mPol. nie dam ci), ‘I will not give to you . . .’. Negotiation allows for the increase of the sum advanced for a pawn—up to six coins—and foresees the possibility that this will not be accepted: כַאק ניד זַא שֵישְט פיניז (kak nie da za sześć pieniedz, mPol. jak nie da za sześć pieniędzy [monet], ‘if he/she will not give for six coins . . .’).

The phrasebook advises firmness and formulates an ultimatum clause, which, by the way, can be used by both the creditor and the borrower: פְרוֹטוֹ  בֵֿיזמִי לֵיבו נֵיבַֿיי (pro to weźmi leybo [for lubo] nie wej[ź], mPol. weź za to, albo nie bierz), ‘either you take it for this or don’t take (it)’. Additionally, the notes provide ready formulae for when the parties have not reached an agreement. The formula expressing disappointment is crossed out, and a more daring formulation offered: נמי טו יֵשט ווילקא שקודא זֵי יַא (nie mi to jest wielka szkoda że ja . . .), ‘it is not a great damage (pity) for me, that I . . .’. A difficult sentence to interpret is: צשלוֹבִיק נֵי מוהַל סֵיבֵי סְטֵיסְקְנוֹצֵי זֵיבֵי מול מוהל זופֿאצי (człowiek nie mohl siebie steisknoć [ścisknąć[5] (?) żeby mohl zobaczy(ć)], mPol. człowiek nie mógł się zmusić [?], [?] żeby mógł zobaczy[ć]), ‘a man could not force (?) himself to see’. This hypothetical exchange ends without using up all the space on the page and with what seems to be a rebuke for a certain person’s possible statements: […]אוֹ,  מי מוֹרַפֿשקי מלוביטיי([c]o mi Morawski mołwitie, mPol. mówicie!), ‘what are you telling me, Morawski!’. 

This last sentence provides the only strictly historical information present in the phrasebook—the name of a Polish individual. In the late medieval period, the aristocratic Morawski family was prominent in the political life of the regions of Mazovia and Podlesie, in today’s Central-Eastern Poland.[6] This nobleman’s name, together with the expressions addressing a female client by the honorific ‘pani’ (‘lady’), may indicate that this Jewish creditor had financial dealings with high Polish society, a hypothesis supported by historical information on credit in medieval Poland. Unfortunately, there is no explicit mention of the creditor’s name, date or place of activity. As stated, his writing can be classified as belonging to the Eastern Ashkenazi non-square type of the 15th-16th centuries, containing some cursive features, such as large shin whose shape is reminiscent of a Latin ‘e’.

Let us now turn briefly to the language of the notes. Their linguistic features belong to the Old Polish (staropolski) layer of the language (Old Polish lasted from the earliest attestation of Polish words in Latin texts in the 12th century until the turn of the 15th and 16th centuries). Before discussing grammatical characteristics of this short text, though, we need to point out the enormous difficulties of reconstructing the words’ pronunciation and morphology. Hebrew characters render imperfectly the rich gamut of Slavic sounds. The writer recorded his aural impressions, noting what he heard, sometimes even dividing words wrongly or amalgamating several short Polish words into one graphic compound, as in line 3 מִטוֹד, mitod(a) for mi to da, ‘(she) will give it to me’. The Hebrew vowels were added only to part of the phrases and, when present, they only partially elucidate the pronunciation. In most cases, the presence of the vowels necessitates another level of analysis, aimed at not only ascertaining how the Hebrew vocalization was used to reflect the vernacular Old Polish vocalic system, but also at understanding how the Hebrew vowels were pronounced by Jews living and writing in Polish-speaking lands. 

It must be mentioned that the inconsistency in spellings is not only a matter of an always-imperfect transposition of the phonetics of one language to a graphic system of another, which does not contain signs expressing sounds which are foreign to Hebrew and Semitic languages. Early Polish texts written in Latin characters are also notorious for their highly inconsistent and idiosyncratic spellings, despite the normalizing ambitions of the Rector of the University of Krakow, Jakub Partoszowic of Żórawica.[7] His tractate on Polish orthography, written in the mid-15th century in Latin, was not able to reform the chaotic spelling of the growing number of vernacular texts. It was only in the blossoming Renaissance culture of the 16th century that lasting normalisation was introduced into Polish spellings. Indeed, Old Polish adopted the Latin alphabet and had to find creative solutions to express nasal vowels ę and ą; the mid-lingual consonants ć, ś, ź, dź; dentals sz, cz, ż, dż; plausives c and dz; and j and ł. No wonder the author of our phrasebook had similar problems, made even more acute by his use of the Hebrew alphabet. 

Thus lamed is used for l and ł (מֵיל, mPol. miła, ‘dear’) (similarly, in Old Polish texts in Latin characters, both sounds are rendered by l[8]); ṣade expresses both c and cz (in Old Polish, too, the grapheme c could be used for both sounds); and resh renders r (רַאד, mPol. rad, rady, ‘glad, happy, satisfied’) but also combines with a shin to render a ż sound when it is spelled rz (etymological ř) (טְרְשֶיבוֹ, mPol. trzeba, ‘it is needed’). Shin/sin (no diacritic point to differentiate these two Hebrew consonants is ever marked in the notes) can render sz (שֵישְט, mPol. sześć, ‘six’), ś (שֵישְט, sześć, ‘six’) or simply s (יֵשט, jest, ‘he/she is’), or be a component with resh to render rz (טְרְשֶיבוֹ, mPol. trzeba, ‘it is needed’). Alternatively, s is rendered by a samekh (סֵיבֵי, siebie, ‘oneself’). Zayn expresses both z (זַא, za, ‘for, in exchange’), dz (פיניז, pieniedz (mPol. pieniądz), ‘money, coin’) and ż (זֵי, że, relative pronoun ‘that’). Kaph and khaphexpress ch (כציש, chcesz, ‘you want’, בִיך, bych, mPol. bym, ‘[I] would . . .’) but also k, interchangeably with qoph (כאק,kak [mPol. jak], ‘how, thus’). Beth is equivalent to b but also expresses w and is, in these cases, provided with a raphe-like sign above (בֵֿיל, wiele, ‘a lot, many’). In turn, the Polish b can be rendered by a pe with a raphe sign as in זופֿאצי(zobaczy[ć], ‘to see’). Pe raphe is also used for an orthographic w, which is indeed pronounced close to f in the proper name מוֹרַפֿשקי, Morawski. The Old Polish g is expressed either by a gimel (גרוש, mPol. grosz, type of coin) or by a he(טוֹהוֹא toho, for the expected togo/tego[9] [mPol. Tego], ‘of this’, or מְנָא הוֹ mno ho [for the expected mnogo], ‘a lot’). The forms of these words with an h are not attested in Old Polish dictionaries. It is uncertain whether the Hebrew transliteration with a he reflects the way the guttural Polish g was perceived in these words by listeners or whether it reflects a Czech influence in which h appears (whereas in Polish there is a g). 

The vowels are written inconsistently, and their pronunciation reflects the specific pronunciations of Polish Jews. For example, a qamaṣ, especially when followed by a mater lectionis aleph, reflects an o sound, as in יֵידְנָא, jedno, ‘one, certain’. The neuter form ending in o rather than feminine (jedna) is suggested by the context. The use of the aleph mater lectionis can, in addition, indicate a long pronunciation of the vowel. 

The use of Hebrew script and the necessity for the writer to adapt it to Slavic sounds makes the precise identification of forms difficult. A good example is the ending of the infinitives: מְלובֿיטְיִ (most probably mołvić[10], mPol. mówić, ‘to say, talk’), דַאצשֵי (dać, ‘to give’), סְטֵיסְקְנוֹצֵי (ścisknąć [?], ‘to coerce’) and זופֿאצי (zobaczy[ć], ‘to see, have a look’). The Hebrew transliteration seems to suggest that the infinitives end in i. In Old Polish, the Old Slavic infinitives ending in i (-ti, -ci) disappeared progressively and were replaced by –c or –ć endings; by 1400, they appeared only in poetic texts for the sake of rhyme..[11] Since our phrasebook dates from the very end of the medieval period when the transformation into –c or –ć, with the disappearance of the final i, had already occurred, the Hebrew transliteration with a yod may be a creative attempt to reflect the soft consonant ć in Hebrew script, unless it reflects Czech influence.[12]

A characteristic verbal form is דְבַאם, most probably dawam (mPol. daję, ‘I give’), an Old Polish formation with an infix –awa- which indicates a repeated action.[13] The verbs ‘to give’, dać, and ‘to give repeatedly’, dawać, are attested in Old Polish. However, in contemporary language, the form dawać is attested in the infinitive only and the first-person singular present tense is the same for both verbs: daję. Another peculiarity is the infinitive of the second-person singular ending in –I attested in weźmi, mPol. weź, ‘take’. The infinitive in –i disappeared early in the Middle Ages with a few exceptions, whose transformation was complete only in the early 16th century. Weźmi is one of the last archaic forms attested until the end of the medieval period.[14]

A further feature demonstrated in the document and which disappeared in the 16th century is the use of the ancient aorist form of the verb ‘to be’ to express the conditional or optative mode. This phenomenon is attested in רַאד בִיך (rad bych, mPol. byłbym rad, ‘I would be glad’), where בִיך bych is an Old Polish form of first-person singular, aorist of być, ‘to be’.[15] Some declined forms seem to keep archaic features. The demonstrative pronoun טוֹהוֹא, toho (for togo)—Genitive case of tentato—consistently displays the vowel o in the penultimate syllable, as opposed to the more modern form tego

From the point of view of the periodization of Polish, the phonetic and grammatical features of these notes allow one to categorise them as belonging to the Old Polish stratum and, more precisely, to its later phase in the 15th or early 16th centuries. Some features attested here, such as the aorist form bych used as a conditional mode, went out of use in the 16th century and were replaced by other forms of the verb ‘to be’, still used in modern Polish. This state of language development, which can be dated to around 1500, corresponds to the palaeographic assessment of the Hebrew script.

Who was the Jewish author of these notes and why did he need to write this short vademecum to be guided through negotiations on credit with his Polish borrowers? That he was active in Central Poland can be deduced from the language as well as the name of the Polish customer, Morawski. However, some elements may suggest that he was not completely fluent in Polish. Thus he had some difficulties with the (admittedly complicated) case declension, such as the use of the Nominative singular instead of the Genitive plural of a noun after numerals 5 and 6 (piat pieniedzsześć pieniedz). More importantly, our money lender translated most of the Polish words into Hebrew. Unlike in most cases of Judeo languages which represent the spoken vernaculars, familiar to their speakers/writers from the cradle and even used to explain the ancestral and sacred but basically foreign Hebrew, here we find that it is Hebrew which helps the writer understand Polish. No less than twelve expressions receive a Hebrew gloss above the line, among them a current expression שֵיהו טְרְשֶיבוֹ מה תצטרך, ‘what is needed/what do you need?’, or a more technical צֵֵישלִי נַא רוּקוֹיְמֵי תרצה על ערבות , ‘do you want it with a guarantor?’. Was the author of the notes a Yiddish speaker who had little opportunity to practice the language of his neighbours? Was he an émigré from a nearby but different country? Some elements of his notes bear resemblance to Czech. We have already seen some cases of h instead of g or the use of the preposition pro, ‘for’, in פְרוֹטוֹ, pro to (mPol. za to), ‘for it’. Borrowed from Latin, pro is a common preposition in Czech. The Dative form of the full personal pronoun, טֵיבֵי, tiebie, ‘to/for you’ (a declined form of ty, ‘you’), is vocalised with a double e, whereas the Polish form is tobie or ci as a short enclitic form. Either the scribe confuses Accusative with Dative or, again, טֵיבֵי represents a Czech influence. Similar uncertainty concerns the form רוּקוֹימֵי, rukojmie (mPol. rękojmia), ‘guarantor’, whose first vowel’s transcription as a shuruq suggests a pronunciation u of the first component of the word, similar to Czech ruka, Polish ręka, ‘hand’. However, the term itself is Polish, and the vowel shuruq may be a way of rendering the nasal Polish ę vowel, which has no Hebrew equivalent. If indeed these are Czech influences, then they could also belong to the Polish of the document rather than to the individual writer. Indeed, the 15th century in Poland was a time of strong cultural and linguistic inspiration from the south.[16]

This modest page of informal notes in Bodl. MS Opp. 600 has not yet disclosed all its secrets. A more detailed study by experts of the history of Western Slavic languages is a desideratum. Nonetheless, we can safely state that this unique document gives us an unprecedented glimpse into the shop of a Jewish financier and records his exchanges with Polish customers.

[1] See, for example, MS. Can. Or. 63 (Neubauer 1377) and Neubauer 1379—the latter copied from the printed version.

[2] Beit-Arié, Malachi, 1994, n° 1378.

[3] See Urbańczyk et al. (ed.): rękojmia: vol. 7 (1973-1977), p. 464-465; zakład: vol. 11 (1996), p. 98. Both terms are attested together in the credit context in Old Polish in the 15th century, e.g., wstawil-li Schadokerski rankoymye na ten zaklad ? ‘Has Szadokerski appointed a guarantor for this surety?’, ibid., vol. 4 (1963-1965), p. 33 (s.v. li).

[4] On this currency and its etymology from Latin grossus, ‘thick, large’ (probably as opposed to thin, bracteat type of coins with the inscription on one side only), see Bańkowski, 2000, vol. 1, p. 483.

[5] The form with a k is irregular and not attested. The meaning proposed here is a hypothesis. For the verb ścisnąć, ‘to squeeze, force’, and ścisnąć (prawem), ‘coerce (by law)’, see Urbański et al. (ed.), vol. 9 (1982-1987), pp. 8-9.

[6] The name ‘Morawski’ is attested in central Poland since the end of the 14th century, see Taszycki (ed.), 1971-1973, vol. 3, p. 553.

[7] Długosz-Kurczabowa, Dubisz, 2006, p. 63. 

[8] Długosz-Kurczabowa, Dubisz, 2006, p. 68.

[9] For the Genitive forms for the demonstrative pronoun, ten, ta, to—tego or togo, see Urbański et al. (ed.), vol. 11 (1982-1987), p. 135.

[10] Urbański et al. (ed.), vol. 11 (1982-1987), p. 111.

[11] Urbański et al. (ed.), vol. 11 (1982-1987), p. 325.

[12] Z. Klemensiewicz, T. Lehr-Spławiński, S. Urbańczyk, Gramatyka Historyczna języka polskiego, Państwowe Wydawnictwo Naukowe, Warszawa, 1955, p. 72.

[13] For the forms of dawać, including the present tense conjugation dawam, dawasz, etc. attested in the 15th century, see Urbański et al. (ed.), vol. 2 (1956-1959), p. 31.

[14] Klemensiewicz, Lehr-Spławiński, Urbańczyk, 1955, p. 73.

[15] For bych/bich, see Urbański et al. (ed.), vol. 1 (1953-1955), p. 192.

[16] On Czech influences on Old Polish by the end of the Middle Ages, see Walczak, 1995, pp. 90-91.


Bańkowski Andrzej, Etymologiczny Słownik Języka Polskiego, Wydawnictwo Naukowe PWN, Warszawa, 2000.

Beit-Arié, Malachi, Supplement of Addenda and Corrigenda to Vol. I, Oxford: Clarendon, 1994.

Długosz-Kurczabowa Krystyna, Dubisz Stanisław, Gramatyka Historyczna Języka Polskiego, Warsaw University Editions, Warsaw, 2006.

Klemensiewicz Zenon, Lehr-Spławiński T., Urbańczyk S., Gramatyka Historyczna Języka Polskiego, Państwowe Wydawnictwo Naukowe, Warszawa, 1955.

Taszycki Witold (ed.), Słownik Staropolskich Nazw Osobowych, Zakład Naukowy Imienia Ossolińskich / Wydawnictwo Polskiej Akademii Nauk, Wrocław, Warszawa, Kraków, Gdańsk, 1971-1973.

Urbańczyk Stanisław et al. (ed.), Słownik Staropolski, Zakład Naukowy Imienia Ossolińskich / Wydawnictwo Polskiej Akademii Nauk, Wrocław, Kraków, Warszawa, 11 vols, 1953-1996.

Walczak Bogdan, Zarys Dziejów Języka Polskiego, Kantor Wydawniczy SAWW, Poznań, 1995.

Professor Judith Olszowy-Schlanger
President, OCHJS; Director, Centre for Hebrew & Jewish Studies; Professor of Hebrew Manuscript Studies, EPHE, PSL; Fellow, Corpus Christi College, Oxford


A List of Grammatical Terms from MS. Opp. 152

Dr Sandra Hajek teaches Judeo-French at the OSRJL.


The Bodleian manuscript MS Opp. 152 (Neubauer, n° 1484) is one of only two preserved manuscripts of the most comprehensive and original medieval dictionary of the Hebrew Bible north of the Pyrenees, the Sefer ha-Shoham (‘The Onyx Book’). The Sefer ha-Shoham was composed in the 1260s in London by Moses ben Isaac, known as ben ha-Nessiah.[1] The manuscript was copied in a decorative Gothic bookhand by two different scribes working in collaboration during the late 13th century, possibly in England before travelling to Europe. In the late 14th century, a Jewish scholar scribbled on fol. 1r a unique list of grammatical terms in Hebrew translated into Old French and written using Hebrew characters in a non-square style of writing, suggesting provenance around the French-German border (see Fig. 1).[2] The Old French (henceforth: O. Fr.) translations display features of the Anglo-Norman dialect (henceforth: Agn.), which had developed particular linguistic characteristics under the influence of Anglo-Saxon (later 12th and early 13th centuries, cf. Pope 1966, 424).[3] The presence of these Anglo-Norman dialect features is not easily explained. Although the Sefer ha-Shoham was composed in England and the manuscript was likely produced there, or in Northern France, the grammatical note on fol. 1 was written after the expulsion of the Jews from England (1290). It can only be surmised that the note was written by a migrant from the island or his descendent. Such authorship would suggest that Jews from England maintained a specific vernacular dialect after settling in the east of France. We have no evidence of similar familiarity on the part of Jewish communities with O. Fr. grammatical terminology. The list in question can be seen as the earliest attestation in France of the tradition of describing the Hebrew language through grammatical terms expressed in the vernacular.[4] The fact that the scribe ever translated the Hebrew terms into O. Fr. means that the O. Fr. grammatical terms were somewhat familiar to him. Therefore, we can surmise that he not only spoke the language (probably in its Anglo-Norman variety) but also used it as a language of education.

Unfortunately, the list is quite short and only displays a few dialectal features. Moreover, it is only partially vocalized, which makes the identification of vocalic features quite difficult. In some cases, the phonetic representation of a graphic sign remains ambiguous: this is the case with the matres lectionis yud and double yud following a non-vocalized consonant, where the preceding vowel could be [i], [e]/[ɛ] (in the case of yud and double yud) or [je]/[jɛ] (in the case of double yud).[5]

One very striking characteristic of Agn. is the raising of unstressed vowels, especially [ə], to [i] (cf. Pope 1966, 439). We find this in the forms אֵין טְרַגִֿיטִיףֿ ent(e)ragitif[6] ‘interrogative’ (< Lat. INTERROGRATIVUS, Mod. Fr. interrogatif[7]), פְרִישונא p(e)risone (for pirsone, cf. below) ‘person’, אַנְטְרְקִייליש antrechilis/antrechilés ‘inserted’ (cf. Mod. Fr. intercalés), and—if yud is a mater lectionis for [i]—also in פְרימְרְא primere ‘first (fem. sg.)’. However, the fact that the raising to [i] can also be found in the last, i.e., tonic syllable of אִנְפֵרושוֹנִיל inperosoni(< Lat. IMPERSONALIS) ‘impersonal’, vocalized with ḥiriq, where one would expect a ṣere or sheva rendering [e]/[ɛ] (cf. Mod. Fr. impersonnel), could point to a different or at least an additional interpretation. According to Zwink (2017, 125), the cases of vocalization alternating between ḥiriq and ṣere attested in the medical treatise Fevres (end of 13th-beginning of 14th century) might point to the similarity of the pronunciation of /e/ and /i/ in O. Fr. spoken by Jews.[8] In Fevres (cf. ibid.), as well as in our list, the alternation also takes place before nasal consonants: next to אִנְפֵרושוֹנִיל inperosonel, we read אֵין טְרַגִֿיטִיףֿent(e)ragitif and—analogically—probably טרנשי{טי}ף אין entransitif ‘intransitive’, which points to a similar pronunciation of /ẽ/ and /ĩ/.[9] The form פְרימְרְא primere/premere (instead of O. Fr. premiere), well attested in Agn. (cf. AND, s.v. primer), shows the early reduction of [je] or [jɛ] to [e] in Western French, which, next to Northern French (Norman), contributed noticeably to the character of Anglo-Norman.[10] If the yud in פלו׳ריל plurirepresents [i], we have here a reduction of the diphthong [je] or [jɛ] to the first element, which is characteristic of Northern O. Fr. (cf. Pope 1966, 488). In שנגולייר, the diphthong may be preserved, the resulting form singulie‘singular’[11] either reflecting the influence of the ‘leading’ O. Fr. dialect, Francien, on the Anglo-Norman variety spoken in England especially in the 13th and 14th centuries (cf. Pope 1966, 451), or an influence of the surrounding Eastern O. Fr. dialects on the Anglo-Norman variety spoken by our scribe at his living place next to the Franco-German border.

In אַנְפַראַטיף anparatif ‘imperative’ (< Lat. IMPERATIVUS, Mod. Fr. impératif), we have an assimilation of the unstressed vowel in the second syllable (-pa-) to the unstressed vowel in the third syllable (-ra-), which goes along with the cases of assimilation that are attested for Agn. (cf. Pope 1966, 439). The vocalization of the initial alef with pataḥ (here representing [ã]) instead of ṣere (representing /ẽ/) is probably a confusion of the initial syllable with the prefix [ã] (en-/an-, cf. below) or—in view of the vocalization of the following syllables with pataḥ—a simple lapse.

A phenomenon sometimes attributed to Judeo-French but which can also be found in Old Occitan and Middle Latin texts in Hebrew script (cf. Zwink 2017, 139) is cases of metathesis, such as p(e)risone for pirsone ‘person’ (cf. above), טַרְנִשִיטִיףֿ tar(e)nisitif for transitif ‘transitive’, and טריצא trece for terce ‘third (fem. sg.)’ (this form shows the same reduction of [je] or [jɛ] [Francien: tierce] to [e] as primere, cf. above).[12] However, as Old French was the mother tongue of the Jews living in Tsarfat (cf. Fudeman 2010, 13) and, as such, was learned prior to Hebrew, it is not probable that we are dealing here with a phonetic influence of Hebrew, which, as a Semitic language, does not permit the combination of obstruent and liquid within a syllable. Rather, we have here a purely graphical influence of Hebrew, which was the principal written language of the Jewish communities in Tsarfat. As cases of metathesis and, likewise, the epenthetic vowel e (rendering [ə]) are also typical for Agn. texts in Latin script (cf. Pope 1966, 490, Burgess 1990, 343), we are probably dealing with two factors that reinforce each other. In tar(e)nisitif and inperosonil (cf. above), the epenthetic vowels do not appear in their usual form as sheva or yud, but rather are adapted to the following or preceding vowels, graphically rendered by ḥiriq and vav respectively.

The spelling with pataḥ rendering the nasal vowel [ã] instead of [ẽ] in antrechilis (cf. above) does not match the phonetic features of the Northern and Western varieties of O. Fr. and, in consequence, Anglo-Norman, where /ẽ/ was conserved and did not coincide with /ã/ to /ã/ (cf. Pope 1966, 427, 428). Again, the form either reflects the influence of Francien, where the coincidence had taken place in the 12th century, on the Anglo-Norman variety spoken in England, or a later influence of Francien or the surrounding O. Fr. dialects on the Anglo-Norman variety spoken by our scribe at his living place near the Franco-German border.

The spelling with pataḥ rendering [a] in ent(e)ragitif (< lat. INTERROGATIVUS, cf. above) does not represent any regular phonetical development and is either a mistake or—considering that in Early Middle English, [a:] was velarised and rounded to [ɔ:] (cf. Pope 1966, 435)—a hypercorrection.

That the scribe does not seem to have been very well trained in writing French using Hebrew characters is shown by clear scribal mistakes,[13] such as פרשוש for פרשונא persone, which occurs more than one time. In אִנפֵ{נ}יטיף infenitif ‘infinitive’, he omitted a consonant sign that was later added above, and in אין טרנשי{טי}ף intransitif, he omitted the first two letters of a syllable. These scribal mistakes could also be an indication that the scribe copied the list very carelessly and did not make it up on his own.

Given that the note on fol. 1r of MS Opp. 152 can be dated to the 14th century, the O. Fr. grammatical terms found herein are earlier than attestations of the respective terms in the oldest extant, complete grammar of (late) O. Fr. also written in O. Fr. (more precisely, in Anglo-Norman), the Donait françois (ca. 1400). In respect to the Donait françois, our note has some peculiarities. Among them is the term טומֵא פְרימְרְא tome primere/premere (‘first case’, with tome maybe erroneously attributed to the feminine gender[14]), as the word tom(b)e, basically meaning ‘fall’ (see FEW 13/3, 407), is attested here in the meaning of ‘grammatical (morphological) case’ and is thus a semantic loan from the Latin grammatical term CASUS (cf. Germ. Fall). Since the Donait has the Latin loanword nominatif in the meaning of ‘first case (nominative)’ (cf. ed. Stengel 1879, 28), the attestation of tome primer(e) ‘first case’ in our list seems to be quite exceptional.[15]

Fig. 1. List of grammatical terms translated from Hebrew into Old French,
MS Opp. 152, fol. 1r. (© Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford)

[1] A partial edition of a manuscript in St. Petersburg (MS RNL Evr II A 34) was published by Collins, 1882, and Klar, 1947, completed the part edited by Collins. See also Olszowy-Schlanger, 2012, pp. 183–198.

[2] The list is mentioned by Olszowy-Schlanger, 2023, p. 128.

[3] For the general characteristics of Anglo-Norman, see Pope (1966, 425f.), for its external history, see ibid., pp. 420–424. It is essential to keep in mind that in research on Old French, the features that are termed ‘dialectal’—i.e., typical for a certain ‘dialect’—are those features that appear regularly in the written texts that can be localized in a specific geographic area on the basis of non-linguistic features (foremost, mentions of the place where a text was written). To what extent these features were part of the actual pronunciation of Old French in different areas cannot be said with certainty, but the probability that the graphically attested forms actually mirror a local or regional pronunciation is increased if the forms: a) can still be found in the respective Modern Gallo-Romance dialects or b) represent a phonetically plausible interstage between the original form (be it Latin or Germanic) on the one side and the pronunciation in the respective Modern Gallo-Romance dialects on the other (cf. Berschin/Felixberger/Goebl 2008, 205).

[4] A similar tradition can be assumed for Christian education, if the extant bilingual (French-Latin) glossaries from 13th-century England are interpreted as serving the teaching of Latin by means of the translation into French and not vice-versa (cf. Kristol 1990, 300). 

[5] The case of אֵין טְרַגִֿיטִיףֿ ent(e)ragitif shows that yud can be preceded by a consonant vocalized with ṣere (here representing the nasalized version of [e]/[ɛ]) as well as by a consonant vocalized with ḥiriq (representing the vowel [i]). As not only intertextual but also intratextual graphic variation is the usual case in Judeo-French texts (as in O. Fr. texts in general), in instances of a missing vocalization the quality of the vowel cannot be deduced from the cases in which yud or double yud are preceded by vocalized consonants. See also note 8.

[6] The blurring of word boundaries in the written text, here in form of the graphical separation of the nexus /ẽn/, probably erroneously considered as the homonymous prefixe en-, is a typical phenomenon of Judeo-French (cf. Banitt 1972, 95).

[7] The Modern French grammatical terms most often do not continue their O. Fr. equivalents but are rather (later) loanwords from Latin.

[8] Attestations of this kind can also be found in the Hebrew-O. Fr. glossaries, first and foremost in the alternation of ḥiriq and ṣere vocalizing alef when this combination stands for the coordinating conjunction ‘and’ (in Latin script: et, here (אֵי) and i (אִי), with loss [according to the pronunciation] of final /t/), but also in other contexts such as e.g., אִיאָנְװִירוֺנִיש לַײֿ, i anvironi(= anvironez) lai (Mod. Fr. et contournez-la) ‘and surround her’, cf. Banitt 1995–2001, vol. 3, no. 14566.

[9] It is, however, unlikely that we have here an early attestation of the well-known coincidence between /ẽ/ and /ĩ/ to /ẽ/ in the history of French, which is generally dated to the 15th–16th centuries (cf. Pope 1966, 174).

[10] For the characteristics which Anglo-Norman shared with the Western varieties of O. Fr. on the one hand, and with the Northern varieties of O. Fr. on the other, cf. Pope 1966, 427–429. The study by De Jong (1996) gives evidence that the overall character of Anglo-Norman was most similar to the Northern (i.e., Norman) varieties of O. Fr.

[11] The reduced forms singulir and singuler are also attested in Agn., cf. AND s. v. singuler.

[12] In the cases mentioned by Zwink (cf. ibid.), however, the vowel sign inserted between an obstruent and a following resh (a combination known as muta cum liquida) is always a ṣere, thus transforming the combination re into er, e.g., ventre > venter ‘belly’.

[13] Of course, some of the above-mentioned features could represent scribal mistakes or lapses, too. The small amount of the leʽazim contained in this list does not allow a definite decision on this point.

[14] In Judeo-French, at the end of a word, alef regularly appears as a mater lectionis for a preceding sheva, rendering the final [ə] of feminine words (cf. Kiwitt/Dörr 2016, 151).

[15] In the context of this paper, it was not possible to examine whether this expression also appears later in the history of French grammaticography.


AND = Anglo-Norman Dictionary (AND2 Online Edition), 2022. Aberystwyth University.

Banitt, Menahem, Le Glossaire de Bâle, vol. 1: Introduction, Jerusalem: Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, 1972.

Banitt, Menahem, Le Glossaire de LeipzigTexte, 3 vols, Jerusalem: Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, 1995–2001.

Berschin, Helmut, Josef Felixberger, and Hans Goebl, Französische Sprachgeschichte, Hildesheim/Zürich/New York: Olms, 2008.

Burgess, Glyn S., ‘Französische Skriptaformen IV: England’, in Lexikon der Romanistischen Linguistik, vol. 5/1, ed. by Günther Holtus, Michael Metzeltin, and Christian Schmitt, Tübingen: Niemeyer, 1990, pp. 337–346.

Collins, George Wolseley, A Grammar and Lexicon of the Hebrew Language entitled Sefer Hassoham by Rabbi Mōseh ben Yitsḥak of England, London: Trubnir, 1882.

De Jong, Thera, ‘Anglo-French in the 13th and 14th centuries: continental or insular dialect?’, in: The Origins and Development of Emigrant Languages. Proceedings from the Second Rasmus Rask Colloquium, Odense University, November 1994, Odense: University Press, 1996, pp. 55–70.

FEW = Wartburg, Walther von (ed.), Französisches Etymologisches Wörterbuch. Eine Darstellung des galloromanischen Sprachschatzes, 25 vols, Bonn/Heidelberg/Leipzig/Basel, Zbinden et al., 1922–1996 (online version:

Fudeman, Kirsten, Vernacular Voices. Language and Identity in Medieval French Jewish Communities, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010.

Kiwitt, Marc, and Stephen Dörr, ‘Judeo-French’, in Handbook of Jewish Languages, ed. by Lily Kahn and Aaron D. Rubin, Leiden: Brill, 2016, pp. 138–177.

Klar, Benjamin (with an introduction by Cecil Roth), The Sepher ha-Shoham: (the Onyx Book) by Moses ben Isaac Hanessiah, Part I, London: Published for the Jewish Historical Society by E. Goldston, 1947 (Hebrew).

Kristol, Andres Max, ‘L’enseignement du français en Angleterre (XIIIe-XVe siècles): les sources manuscrites’, Romania, vol. 11, no. 443/444 (1990), pp. 289–330.

Olszowy-Schlanger, Judith, ‘Sefer ha-Shoham (“Le Livre d’Onyx”), dictionnaire de l’hébreu biblique de Moïse ben Isaac ben ha-Nessiya (Angleterre, vers 1260)’, in En mémoire de Sophie Kessler-Mesguich, ed. by Jean Baumgarten, José Costa, Jean-Pierre Guillaume et Judith Kogel, Paris: Presses Sorbonne Nouvelle, 2012, pp. 183–198.

Olszowy-Schlanger, Judith, Learning Hebrew in Medieval England. Christian Scholars and the Longleat House Grammar, Toronto: PIMS, 2023.

Pope, Mildred Katharine, From Latin to Modern French with Especial Consideration of Anglo-Norman. Phonology and Morphology, Manchester: University Press, 1966 [1934].

Stengel, Eduard, ‘Die ältesten Anleitungsschriften zur Erlernung der französischen Sprache’, Zeitschrift für neufranzösische Sprache und Literatur mit besonderer Berücksichtigung des Unterrichts im Französischen auf den deutschen Schulen 1 (1879), pp. 1–40.

Zwink, Julia, Altfranzösisch in hebräischer Graphie : Teiledition und Analyse des Medizintraktats  ‘Fevres’, Berlin/Boston: de Gruyter, 2017.

Dr Sandra Hajek
OSRJL Judeo-French Teacher; Research Associate,
Georg-August-Universität Göttingen

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